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Archive for May, 2011

Palatalization

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

JR recently sent a comment on my claim that the word perdure is pronounced almost the same as perjure. Here is what he said:

“I have difficulty understanding the correct way to pronounce some words, e.g. that your word perdure is pronounced with a [j] sound in it. At other websites the pronunciation is given with a [d] sound in the word. Which is correct?”

In US English the SOUNDS [dy] and [ty] regularly become [j] and [ch], respectively. That is why picture is pronounced [pikchur] and verdure is pronounce [vurjur] unless they head an accented syllable. It follows that perdure would be pronounced [perjur] by speakers from the US. It is very difficult to pronounce [dyur] that way without slipping into [j].

If these sounds begin an accented syllable, this shift usually does not take place, hence most speakers would keep the [d] sound in dew, duty, and due—unless they drop the [y] in their dialects, i.e. where dew and do are pronounced the same. However, there is a little softening of the [d] even under accent.

This process is called “palatalization” because in pronouncing [d] and [t] (identical sounds except the vocal cords vibrate in pronouncing [d] ), the tongue moves to the center of the mouth, to the palate.

The same thing happens to [g] and [k] in other languages. These sounds move forward to the palate from the back of the mouth. That is why GI and CI are pronounced [j] and [ch] in Italian, e.g. Giovanni, Giuseppe, Luigi and Puccini, fettuccine.

Cool Way to Say “Insensitive”

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Pronunciation: pæ-kê-dêr-mê-tês • Hear it! • Adjective

Meaning: 1. Of, like or related to thick-skinned animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses. 2. Thick skinned, insensitive.

Notes: Well, we all have known that a pachyderm is an elephant since childhood; it should come as no surprise that this word has an adjective. That suffix -at before the -ous is redundant, so you may omit it if you wish: pachydermous is just as good as today’s word—and shorter, if you’re in a hurry. The state of having (abnormally) thick skin?Pachydermia.

In Play: Sometimes thick skin is a good defense mechanism: “I don’t think your referring to him as a burnt-out has-been will offend that pachydermatous old goat!” However, it can also be an indicator of insensitivity: “Donny Brooke is too pachydermatous to enjoy the subtleties of poetry; he wouldn’t enjoy the reading.”

Word History: Today’s Good Word comes to us, via Latin and French, from Greek pakhydermos “thick-skinned”, a compound made up of pakhys “thick” + derma “skin”. Pachys does not show up in many Greek borrowings in English; pachysandra was named for its thick stamens while pachycephalosaurs were named for their thick skulls.Derma, however, appears in many borrowings, including dermal “pertaining to skin”, epidermis “outer layer of skin”, and the study of skin, dermatology. (Today we are grateful to Andrew Shaffer, who magically sends out our Good Words to you daily and whose voice you hear pronouncing this word, for giving us the skinny on this funny word.)

Don’t Miss the Giant Egress

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Did you hear about the zoo manager who had trouble getting visitors to leave at closing time. Just before closing, he would put up a large a sign saying “This way to the giant egress.” Curious hordes went that way and, of course, found themselves back out on the street. Nothing misleading about that.

Conversation with a Granddaughter

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

My wife and I skyped our grandchildren in Colorado Sunday and I had a stunning conversation with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Laurel.

I started with a joke I hoped would not go over her head. I told her that we had a squirrel in our attic. She asked what it was doing there. I said that it was looking for me because I’m nuts and squirrels love nuts. I was right—she didn’t laugh. Her comment was, “They’re just homophones.”

Amazingly, she was right: the adjective nuts and the plural of nut are just that, homophones, two different words that sound alike much like piece and peace or sow and sew.  I was impressed first by the fact that this concept, which I taught to  college students for 35 years, is being taught in a Boulder, Colorado elementary school. But I was more impressed that an seven-year-old girl could not only remember the concept, but could use it to identify homophonic pairs from the speech zipping past her ears.

Deeply impressed by this mental feat and her willingness to sit still and converse with me, I boldly asked what else she was doing in school. She told me that her class was writing poems. Again, not bad for second grade. She even agreed to recite one that she remembered: “I’m not happy today because I did not play.”

I told her how much her verse impressed me, how much I loved poetry, and offered her what I considered a grandfatherly suggestive one of my own: “My thinking is muddy because I did not study.” I’m sure now its suggestiveness was so obvious as to offend her. She told me that it sounded like a haiku! She wasn’t sure, though, because she did not have time to count the syllables. (Haiku generally contain 17 syllables in Japanese, though English haiku is usually shorter.)

Was I accidentally telling the truth all those times I claimed that my grandchildren are smarter than average? I think it is true that children are growing up in a culturally richer environment than my generation grew up in. The public school she attends is obviously an excellent one. But now I’m thinking: could there be a linguistic gene? How else could I hold a conversation with a seven-year-old in MY highly specialized language?

May Day in Germany

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

In response to our Good Word May Day, Monika Freund sent me her remembrances of another European May Day custom that persisted to the late 50s:

On April 30 all the bachelors of a village came together in the local pub and auctioned all the girls off: the one who made the highest bid (later redeemed in beer) was allowed to set a May tree,  meaning, a young man who wanted to date a girl would decorate a young birch tree with ribbons and put it into the front garden of her parents’ home.

He was then allowed to come for Sunday Kaffeetafel all May. The girl who got the highest bid of all became “May Queen” and the highest bidder was “May King”. If a boy from a neighboring village wanted to set a tree, he had to buy himself a place at the pub event at the rate of four crates of beer.